Willamette River named one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2019

April 16, 2019

Outdated dam operations threaten water quality, salmon and steelhead


David Moryc, American Rivers, (503) 307-1137

Travis Williams, Willamette Riverkeeper, (503) 890-1683

Bob Rees, Willamette Salmon & Steelhead Recovery Coalition, Representing the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, (503) 812-9036

Washington, D.C. – American Rivers today named the Willamette River among America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2019, citing the threat that outdated dam operations pose to water quality and the river’s imperiled salmon and steelhead runs. American Rivers and its partners called on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to update its dam operation plan, and Congress to fund the plan to improve flows, clean water and habitat.

“The America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action to save rivers that face a critical decision in the coming year,” said David Moryc with American Rivers. “Unless the Army Corps improves dam operations, the Willamette River’s wild chinook salmon and winter steelhead may be extirpated.”

What was once an estimated annual run of nearly 400,000 spring chinook up the Willamette has dwindled to a few thousand naturally reproducing fish. Last year, the winter steelhead run totaled 512 fish, and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife warns that the run is under imminent threat of extinction.

There are 25 major dams in the Willamette Basin, thirteen of which are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In key tributaries, access to up to 40 percent of winter steelhead and 90 percent of spring chinook historic spawning habitat is blocked by high head dams. A primary cause of salmon decline is inadequate downstream fish passage at dams on Willamette River tributaries. The federal government agreed in 2008 to make improvements to water quality and fish passage at the Army Corps dams, but little progress has been made.

American Rivers and its partners called on the Army Corps to act immediately to implement improvements at the dams, including changes in operation to produce more natural flows and improve fish passage. The agency must make structural modifications to the dams to facilitate downstream passage for juvenile salmon and continue to improve upstream passage for adult fish so that they can gain access to their historic spawning habitat.  In addition, the groups urged Congress to ensure federal funding for improved dam operations.

“The U.S. Army Corps dams in the Willamette River system cause ongoing harm to native river species, especially spring chinook and winter steelhead, every day. It is time to end this reality in the Willamette River system and make fundamental improvements to these dams,” said Travis Williams, Riverkeeper & Executive Director of Willamette Riverkeeper.

“The Willamette River is the lifeblood of all Oregonians, once producing abundant returns of the world’s most sought-after salmon,” stated Bob Rees, campaign manager for the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. “Willamette spring chinook fuel sport and commercial fisheries from rural Oregon to the Gulf of Alaska, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is choking off this irreplaceable resource. The social and ecological value of these fish can’t be overstated. From the Oregon food bank to bears, eagles and baby salmon, this keystone species provides immeasurable benefit to the entire Pacific Northwest,” Rees concluded.

The Willamette River in Oregon flows 187 miles out of the Cascades and Coast Range Mountains to its confluence with the Columbia River in the city of Portland. The river has thirteen significant tributaries, including the Clackamas, Molalla, McKenzie, and North and South Santiam Rivers.

The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers® report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates. Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with Wild and Scenic designations, and the prevention of harmful development and pollution.

The Willamette River was previously included on this list in 2006. Other rivers in the region listed as most endangered in recent years include the Green-Duwamish (2019, 2016), South Fork of the Salmon River (2019 and 2018), South Fork Skykomish River (2017) and Green-Toutle River (2017).

America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2019

#1 Gila River, New Mexico
Gov. Grisham must choose a healthier, more cost-effective way to provide water to agriculture than by drying up the state’s last major free-flowing river.

#2 Hudson River, New York

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must consider effective, nature-based alternatives to storm-surge barriers that would choke off this biologically rich tidal estuary.

#3 Upper Mississippi River, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri

State and federal agencies must enforce laws that prohibit illegal levees, which increase flood risk for communities and degrade vital fish and wildlife habitat.

#4 Green-Duwamish River, Washington

Local leaders must produce a flood protection plan that safeguards communities and restores habitat for chinook salmon — fish that are essential to the diet of Puget Sound’s endangered orca whales.

#5 Willamette River, Oregon

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must immediately improve 13 dams to save wild chinook salmon and steelhead from going extinct.

#6 Chilkat River, Alaska

The Japanese investment firm, DOWA, must do the responsible thing and back out of a mining project that could decimate native salmon.

#7 South Fork Salmon River, Idaho

The U.S. Forest Service must safeguard endangered fish by denying a mining proposal that could pollute this tributary of the Wild and Scenic Salmon River.

#8 Buffalo National River, Arkansas

Gov. Hutchinson must demand closure of an industrial hog-farming facility that pollutes groundwater and threatens endangered species.

#9 Big Darby Creek, Ohio

Local leaders must use state-of-the-art science to craft a responsible development plan that protects this pristine stream.

#10 Stikine River, Alaska

The International Joint Commission of the United States and Canada must protect the river’s clean water, fish and wildlife, and indigenous communities by stopping harmful, polluting mines.

2019’s “River of the Year”: Cuyahoga River, Ohio

American Rivers celebrates the progress Cleveland has made in cleaning up the Cuyahoga River, fifty years since the river’s famous fire that sparked the nation’s environmental movement.


American Rivers believes every community in our country should have clean water and a healthy river. Since 1973, we have been protecting wild rivers, restoring damaged rivers and conserving clean water for people and nature. With headquarters in Washington, D.C., and offices across the country, we are the most effective river conservation organization in the United States, delivering solutions that will last for generations to come. Connect with us at AmericanRivers.org.